War, rape and slavery in the Congo
Johann Hari reports on war, rape and slavery in the Congo.
It starts with a ward full of women who have been gang-raped and then shot in the vagina. I am standing in a makeshift ward in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the only hospital that is trying to deal with the bushfire of sexual violence in Eastern Congo. Most have wrapped themselves deep in their blankets so I can only see their eyes, staring blankly at me. Dr Denis Mukwege is speaking. “Around ten percent of the gang-rape victims have had this happen to them,” he says softly, his big hands tucked into his white coat. “We are trying to reconstruct their vaginas, their anuses, their intestines. It is a long process.”We have to do something. What can we do? Reading things like this makes me despair.
We walk out into the courtyard and he begins to explain – in the national language, French – the secret history of this hospital. “We started with a catastrophe we just couldn’t understand,” he says softly. One day early in the war, the UNICEF medical van he was using was looted. Coincidentally, a few days later, a woman was carried here on her grandmother’s back after an eight-hour trek. “I had never seen anything like it. She had been gang-raped and then her legs had been shot to pieces. I operated on her on a table with no equipment, no medicine.”
She was only the first. “We suddenly had so many women coming in with post-rape lesions and injuries I could never have imagined. Our minds just couldn’t take in what these women had suffered.” The competing armies had discovered that rape was an efficient weapon in this war. Even in this small province, South Kivu, the UN estimates 45,000 women were raped last year alone. “It destroys the morale of the men to rape their women. Crippling their women cripples their society,” he explains, shaking his head gently. There were so many militias around that Dr Mukwege had to keep his treatments secret – the women were terrified of being kidnapped again and killed. So he became an Oscar Schindler of the Congolese mass rapes, treating women undercover for years, taking the risk he would trigger the fickle rage of the drugged-up and freaked-out teenager soldiers marauding across the country.